Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I've been reading The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. He's the surgeon who put together that simple checklist for hospitals that reduced surgical complications by a ridiculous percentage. And the book is about what kinds of situations checklists work best in, and how to develop and refine lists. It's more interesting than it sounds: he visits the guy at Boeing who put together a checklist for what to do if the pressure latch blows off at 20,000 feet and the oxygen tanks fail, too, and he writes about what he learned about how construction sites keep track of thousands of steps involving 16 subcontractors.

I'm not much of a list person, myself: I really do not want to itemize what I need to do. But there is one area of my life that I have created a checklist for myself, and that is in basic parenting. Sounds crazy, I know. But in the midst of a busy day it's stupidly easy to forget the obvious things, like showing your kids you love them.

I learned this during the worst of Big Guy's troubles, when things were pretty grim. Big Guy was erratic, explosive, unpredictable, dangerous. He was so difficult to deal with that one day I realized with horror that I hadn't voluntarily touched him in a week. So that became item #1 on my parenting checklist: touch Big Guy five times a day. Pathetic, perhaps -- but it helped me do something I needed to do that I wasn't doing because of stress.

Then I looked around at my other kids, each of whom was also stressed. (Sometimes the hardest part of dealing with having one kid fall apart is the effect on all the others.) I thought through the ways each one knew they were loved -- for one it was snuggling, for another one-on-one time, and another liked to talk -- and tried to come up with one thing to do each day for each child.

I used that checklist for a long time. I didn't always get to everything every day (and mercifully one kid's special thing was a once-a-weeker), but at least I knew what I'd forgotten.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps a year into using it, I forgot about the list. After a while I also forgot to do some of the things on it. But it's had a lasting effect on my thinking: when behavior around here heads south and everybody starts getting cranky, one of the first questions I ask myself is if I've neglected to do the things that make my kids feel loved.

It makes a huge difference to a child -- or to anyone, me included -- to be emotionally fed before  hunger starts gnawing at the heart. When Andrew arrives home and calls eagerly to Little Guy, "You ready for your story?" it means something different to my youngest than if Little Guy has to pester his dad to read to him. It's the same bedtime story, and there's good in it either way. But it's better for my boy's heart when Andrew remembers. Because he knows Daddy thought of him. And that matters.

One of the points of The Checklist Manifesto is that when we're busy or stressed or sick or tired, it's easy to skip the obvious stuff. A checklist reminds us to do the basics. And I think that letting our kids know that they're loved is probably about as basic to our long-term success as parents as washing your hands is to starting surgery.


  1. i love this post, and totally agree.

  2. This book has been resting on my nightstand for several months; I just couldn't get in to it the first two or three times around. Guess I'll give it another try.

  3. I read an article in the New Yorker a while back about this guy and his lists - it never occurred to me that this could be applied to parenting. Not just the lists about what books need to be at school each day, or which day to wear sneakers for gym class. The real emotional-feeding actions, that - as you say - when offered proactively will make a huge difference. Great idea. Lovely post.

  4. Cool idea - Wookie & I worked through the "Five love languages for couples" and I keep meaning to do something similar with the kids. Never thought of doing the checklist tho'.